Sunday, November 15, 2020

Hutchmoot: Homebound

 What is Hutchmoot? 

“Unexpected. Curiously delicious.” 

"A conference about the intersection of faith and creativity." 

“I’m going to hang out with my nerd friends. Stop asking questions while I’m reading.” 

 “A gathering of Christians who try to tell the story of Jesus in all art forms.” 

“Hutchmoot is like a man who traveled east to see the dawn, and saw it — its first beams piercing furtively through the trees, its advancing golden fingers stealing away the silver mists; its light dancing in resolute, hopeful eyes, and playing in limbs and fingers not its own. And the man, having seen it, traveled west, back to his home, to announce: ‘Dawn is coming!’ But his face betrayed him, so that even before he could draw breath to proclaim the news, a little girl walked up to him and asked: ‘Mr. Man, what is the morning light like?'”

The infamous difficulty of describing Hutchmoot made me put off sending invitations for weeks. But eventually I did. Even better, some friends responded by coming to join me. 

I've been intrigued by Hutchmoot for years, ever since growing from an Andrew Peterson fan to a Rabbit Room fan (which is almost by definition also an Andrew Peterson fan, since he and his brother founded this community to foster art and gathered artists to foster community). Rabbit Room blogs, music, book discussion groups, liturgies, and children's books have resonated with me. But Nashville in October never seemed very accessible given the fact that I was either in Cambodia or a broke and busy grad student.  

This year, courtesy of COVID, Hutchmoot became Hutchmoot: Homebound, conveniently located in my living room and those of a few thousand friends. A solid weekend of content, often with 4 simultaneous sessions, was livestreamed and then posted. I knew I wanted to participate, but staring at a computer alone occupies too much of my time and defies everything that Hutchmoot stands for. Though I missed the livestream, I listened compulsively the following week during workouts, meals, bus rides, cleaning, baking, and occasionally even sitting still. The website is based on the idea of a home. Content is organized into "rooms" including the sound booth, backyard, porch, art studio, and kitchen, where the ukulele-playing chef demonstrates recipes and recites original spoken-word poetry. There's even a secret tunnel to the "Field of Glory," featuring challenges ranging from a collaborative quilting project, to leaving a mysterious note for a stranger, to reenacting a favorite movie scene, to playing "Ode to Joy" on kazoos. 

The next Sunday morning, three friends and I gave Hutchmoot five hours of undivided attention. We read a liturgy aloud, watched several speakers and a one-act play, listened to music, discussed a short story, drank tea, and ate food I made following Hutchmoot recipes. Scones are a fixture of Hutchmoot conferences, so I made my first-ever scones, cranberry orange. Am I the only one who grew up reading the Redwall series, children's fantasy novels about forest animals who engage in epic battles? Their lavish victory feasts always made my mouth water, and until college they were my only exposure to scones, which sounded simply divine. So scones seemed superbly well-suited for a conference that revels in fantasy literature. 

My invitation cast a wide net, and I wasn't sure who would bite, but we had an interesting combination of participants. None of these three friends really knew each other. None were from the same country. None were into quite the same form of creativity. None had ever heard of Hutchmoot or most of the presenters or artists. At least we all shared a love for Jesus, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien, all of whom have deeply inspired Hutchmooters. Part of me was wistful that I couldn't join with fellow Peterson fans (I know several in America and one in Africa), but I'm glad these three were willing to take the plunge. My take on Hutchmoot was enriched through their perspectives: what resonated, what confused them, what parallels they saw in their own lives and work. Our time passed far too quickly for my liking, leaving me hungry for more.

Some themes that ran through multiple sessions were the need for excellent art and the power of fiction, particularly fantasy and poetry. (One conversation was inspired by Tolkien's essay "On Fairy Stories." Another is available free in this podcast on "The Integrated Imagination," republished from Hutchmoot.) Story can lower our defenses by removing us from the reality we think we know so well. It presents us with a world in which anything is possible and nothing is taken for granted. It can gnaw on our thoughts and emotions and imagination, illuminate our relationships and struggles, make us ache for something we didn't know existed, until it seeps into our very way of being. The best fiction reorients us to something truer than mere "reality" as shown in the daily news or HGTV. 

I've been trying to appreciate and enjoy more nonfiction, and while the nonfiction I've read has generally shaped me in positive ways, Hutchmoot made me desperate to plunge into good stories. You too? Join me in choosing original new fiction from The Rabbit Room. I think a top contender for me is Helena Sorenson's The Door on Half-Bald Hill, which Amazon lists under the unlikely combination of "Christian allegorical fiction" and "dark fantasy horror." Prior to Hutchmoot, her name sounded vaguely familiar from Rabbit Room posts, but this month I find myself arrested by her speaking and writing. 

But it wasn't all about fiction. Andrew Peterson read a chapter from his forthcoming book on trees. Trees? I went in skeptical, but it made me cry. I enjoyed seeing artists and musicians peel back the curtain and show their crafting, reflecting, and revising process. I was moved by Andy Gullahorn's song "I Will," stirred by Ruth Naomi Floyd's commentary (and demonstration) of the blues as modern-day lament, and captivated by a discussion on the Holy Spirit being breath. And what lingered perhaps most of all, what's made my fingers itch and my brain scramble unbidden to untangle melody lines and piece together lyrics, is the Arcadian Wild's 4-song EP. Please go watch their two music videos, tell me what you think, and wait impatiently with me for the next two to be released. 

Truth. Beauty. Light. Darkness. Love. Sorrow. Hope. Hutchmoot was a diamond refracting goodness in ever-shifting directions and hues. Not every session was my cup of tea, but their cumulative effect on me was significant. Unlike entertainment that numbs and distracts, this seemed to heighten my emotions and plunge me into big questions. 

I'm inspired by A.S. "Pete" Peterson's words on the main page:
I think it’s safe to say that one of the central, yet unspoken, tenets of the Rabbit Room is a belief in the virtue of paying attention.
The world is full of distraction, and each of us are full of the tendency to read lightly, just the headlines, and jump to conclusions, to look quickly and come to quick judgements, to listen to samples and claim we understand the whole, to see a social media update and assign a neighbor to a stereotype. We do it all the time.
One of the things I’ve most appreciated about Hutchmoot over the years is that for one weekend a year, we get to overturn those habits and tendencies. We pay our attention to good things, and in return our attention rewards us with deeper empathy for those around us, and a deeper understanding of art, music, story, and ultimately of our God and the inevitable coming of his Kingdom on earth. (emphasis added)
Touchée, Pete. You exposed my chronic distraction. For a few talks when I wasn't sitting still, I needed several listens before I could recall even the gist. I still fall for the lies that I can multi-task well, that slowing down to focus isn't realistic, that peace of mind beckons like a pot of leprechaun gold at the end of my to-do list rainbow. My addiction to busyness and efficiency threaten my ability to be fully present to unexpected joys, to think deeply, to connect. No wonder I'm left brittle and ill-equipped for life's challenges.

Hutchmoot and its many gifted contributors have renewed my reflections on how I spend my time (and why), and my desire to choose more intentionally what gets my attention. Creativity and community are inextricably intertwined, and I want to cultivate both in my life - not just in October, but all year long.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Five myths I've heard from Cambodian teachers

How flexible is your schema? 

I'm in the middle of a training series with Cambodian teachers, and next time we'll be talking about Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. A constructivist, Piaget argued that rather than passively receiving and regurgitating new knowledge, people organize information and experiences into a series of schemata (kinda like mind maps) on various topics. We have a schema for how to act and what will happen. (Dentist: bright lights, open mouth, bad news, that little vacuum that sucks out excess liquid.) We have a schema for everyone we know, including ourselves. (Colleague: neat freak, vegetarian, chatty, tech phobic.

As we approach each new data point or situation, we interpret it based on an existing schema, trying to assimilate the new into what we already know. If we can't, we need to accommodate the new by revising or refining our schema. Young kids have very flexible schemata that they're constantly adapting. (Not every four-legged animal is a doggie? Okay, got it.) In adulthood, it's tempting to let our schemata fossilize, especially the well-established ones. We often reject new data that doesn't easily fit into our preconceptions. A kind word from a new neighbor might balance out or negate a nasty first impression, but a kind word from a boss with whom you have a long history of conflict may be ignored or viewed with cynicism. Constructivism helps explain why people who experience the same situation, like a mass shooting or a pandemic, can interpret it in sharply contrasting ways to confirm their prior beliefs.

I've hesitated to blog much about teacher training, even though it's a big passion, because I still have so much to learn. Between my language limitations, the cultural barriers, and our widely divergent prior experiences, I feel clueless a lot of the time. It's like trying to negotiate a peace treaty with only one-syllable words; to make my points, I have to rely a lot on pictures and hands-on activities that may be very unfamiliar to teachers, and I don't always understand their points during discussions. 

Studying Piaget and creating this handout for next week clarified more deeply to me that the most important part of my job as a teacher trainer may not be to present data, but to uncover schemata. Teachers are far from blank slates. They show up filled with views about the nature of education, about individual students, about themselves, about American and Cambodian culture. Some of these views make them receptive to me and the content I share; some do not. Some views help them engage their students; some do not. Some overlap with American perspectives; some do not. Teachers are a diverse group whose attitudes have been shaped to varying degrees by Cambodian traditional values, international voices, and their own experiences. Understanding these attitudes is critical to my ability to resonate with them and provide helpful resources. Here are five statements I've heard from teachers that could impact our trainings:

1. If parents don't value education, neither will their children. 

In one session, I asked participants to step into the middle of the circle if they agreed. Everyone moved forward for the above statement, with just one adding a qualifier: "It's possible their children will be different, but 90% of the time they're not." Certainly this belief has supporters in the US too, and many factors other than the teacher contribute to a child's motivation and achievement. However, automatically blaming the child and parents makes teachers feel that it's out of their hands. In fact, there's a lot teachers can do to improve or adapt their approach to better serve students. (Especially that group of private school teachers, of whom only about 1/4 have received any formal training as teachers. But even graduates of the government teacher training school have room for growth.)

Many teachers here face immense pressure to march on through a packed and challenging national curriculum, with their pace dictated not by students' comprehension but by the standardized tests. Many schools give teachers no planning time, so they literally show up to class having barely looked at the lesson. In one or two of the lessons I observed, the teacher spent the first 15 minutes copying the lesson from the sole textbook onto the board. He spent the next 15 minutes telling students to copy it into their notebooks, and they spent the last 15 minutes trying to answer the textbook's question about said lesson. No wonder many students struggle to understand or stay motivated!

2. Every class has two main groups: students who understand the lesson, and "slow" or "weak" learners. 

Several teachers have asked me what to do about these weak learners, as if the same students are always weak in every lesson. I'm glad they're concerned and trying to address those who don't instantly grasp the content. In that same internship, I met a teacher who had simply given up on them. When I guest taught for his 10th grade English class, he told me, "The kids in the back don't know anything and don't care. I focus on the front two rows." I don't think he's alone. And he was right: after four years of English teachers with low expectations, some of these kids hadn't even brought their notebooks along and seemed shocked that I expected them to pay attention when they were completely lost. 

I've often heard a similar attitude from parents: "My child is good at Khmer but bad at math," or "My daughter is smart but my son is slow," as if academic achievement is a fixed state that nobody can influence. This belief has major ramifications since dropping out is so common, especially in rural areas; I heard that about half of Cambodian children leave school by the end of grade 6. If your kid isn't smart and can't keep up in class, why would you continue sacrificing to send all those school fees when the child could stay home and help on the farm? 

3. If kids are not writing, they're not learning. 

OK, to be fair, I'm not sure I've heard teachers say this. But many have seemed hesitant to depart too far from the "teacher lectures - students write notes or answer questions" lesson format, for fear of both wasted time and behavior issues. They enjoy participating in creative activities during seminars, like projects, discussions, games, and skits, but don't promise to use them in their own classes. And I've seen it in other ways. 

I know a foreigner who started a bilingual preschool and fights hard to battle this myth among teachers and parents. Many parents are convinced their 3-year-old should be writing English letters and numbers daily. Otherwise, their tuition is wasted. She has to educate them on the value of age-appropriate play as a crucial foundation for many subsequent skills. She also has a chart that reads "Listening - Speaking - Reading - Writing" with an arrow from left to right. She explains that skills develop in this order in our native language for a good reason. Especially for young children, they should develop in the same order in a second language. Children don't need their first exposure to English to focus on writing; play can incorporate lots of songs and speech, building children's listening and speaking skills. 

I also saw this struggle among my colleagues when I was a classroom teacher. The Khmer curriculum focused heavily on reading and writing, which made a lot of sense for the nearly half of the student body who spoke Khmer at home. For the other half, learning how to spell "tomato" in the world's longest alphabet before they knew how to pronounce it or ask for it at the market was not exactly motivating. Eventually native and non-native speakers were split into different Khmer classes, but difficulties persisted. It seemed that every year of elementary school, students were spending months trying to relearn the alphabet while often lacking confidence to speak any Khmer in daily life. Foreign parents often requested a greater emphasis on listening and speaking, but this was so far from teachers' experiences as learners  that several teachers never successfully switched. 

4. Fear is a necessary component in classroom management. 

I always start my presentation on classroom management by saying it needs to be founded on love. We love students, therefore we want them to be safe in our classroom and to be equipped with positive habits for a bright future, therefore we correct. We shouldn't discipline students out of anger, impatience, a need for control, or fear that they'll make us look bad. No participant has ever disagreed with me on this. (Not that Cambodians are prone to openly disagree with someone teaching them!) 

Their real attitudes are more complex, though. The American who initially created this classroom management presentation says he often saw Cambodian teachers overly focused on consequences for misbehavior. "How far can we go to make students behave?" They underestimated the value of classroom structures, guided practice, encouragement, etc. to promote positive behaviors. Correction should be a last resort, and the goal is to use the gentlest possible means that brings about change, not the heaviest punishment allowed under school policy. 

This conversation reminded me of the battle I used to have with student trash. Each period, a new group of students entered my classroom, and as they emptied their water bottles or received old homeworks back, they'd put them on the shelf under each desk. Once there, the trash was out of sight, out of mind for them and me, as hard as I tried to remind them to check desks on their way out. Every few days, I'd make a class empty the desks, and they'd comply but protest that it wasn't their trash. One day, the principal announced that since many desks were old and in poor condition, he was replacing them all... with shelf-free desks. One simple change in classroom materials eliminated the trash problem instantly without nagging or punishment. 

With my current group, we read an article on cultivating emotional maturity. It emphasized the power of "love bonds" over "fear bonds" to motivate and sustain an individual's healing and growth. I was hoping it would motivate my teachers to choose love bonds with students, affirming and acting on their care for students while seeking freedom from selfish motives. Instead, they surprised me by commenting that they thought fear was critical. "Yes, we love our students, but fear is the best motivator for them to behave." They told me that in the decade or so since corporal punishment was banned in schools, student behavior and achievement have declined noticeably. I've heard similar statements from several other Cambodians. Some participants even said they've given students a small whack on the hand on occasion, which they distinguished from the harsher beatings that used to be acceptable in school. I suggested a couple alternatives, but having taught mostly upper-class high school students, my experiences are sooo far removed from theirs as they work with low-income children in grades 1-9. (These trainees admitted they hadn't yet finished reading the article, so I'm hoping it will nudge them to reconsider some of their assumptions.) 

Their statements mirrored the #1 comment I hear from parents and guardians toward naughty kids: "[I'm going to] hit you now." Last week, I even heard a grandma threaten a 2-year-old that I would hit him if he didn't stop his tantrum! Actual hitting is rare, so I'm skeptical about the efficacy of this empty threat. But I think for parents and teachers who grew up with corporal punishment as an ever-present possibility, it's scary losing the main behavior tool you know. 

5. Classroom management is easy in America because American children are well-behaved. 

(Funny, some Americans have told me the opposite stereotype about Asian children!) I think this belief is an extension of the perception that everyone in America is as healthy, wealthy, and happy as they look in Hollywood movies. During my internship in 2016, teachers were tempted to dismiss a video clip on classroom management in an American school with a largely low-income, minority student body. They told me that US strategies weren't adequate for the behavioral challenges among their Cambodian students. I had to explain to the teachers that far from their assumptions, some US schools have resorted to metal detectors to keep students' weapons out! Students who arrive at school with excellent home support, motivation, self-discipline, and social skills are the exception, not the norm, in every country. But I'm not surprised that if they hold this view and try a new technique, they'd get discouraged and give up on the technique before it's had a chance to make a difference. 

I've spent so little time thus far observing Cambodian teachers' classes and listening to them talk about school. I hope I can change that in the coming year as schools slowly resume. I'd like more data points and experiences to challenge and refine my own schemata of how Cambodian teachers think and act. But the little bit I've heard has reminded me that we come at this shared topic, education, from widely divergent angles. I'm not sure teachers are applying much from my trainings yet. It's not because they lack intelligence, and in most cases I don't think they lack motivation either. (Or time, while they await approval to reopen the school.) I think it's more that our schemata don't align enough for my trainings to motivate a change in their behavior. I'm hopeful that as I grow to better understand each participant and his/her felt needs, I can tailor my instruction and help motivate them to try new things. 

My goal is not to make them American teachers who think and act just like I do. My goal is to help them become the teachers they were created to be, teachers who will resonate with their students far better than I could as an outsider. Where they're already doing well, I don't want to get in the way. But where their beliefs are hindering growth among teachers and students, I want to challenge assumptions. Until I figure out how to do that, all these teacher training presentations are more beneficial to me (practice makes progress!) than to the participants. While I may not have changed anyone's mind yet, at least I'm getting somewhere with discovering their current views.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

A needed shake-up

Since my roommate moved out in July, I’ve done some deep cleaning, including under the oven for the first time in my three years here. While it was moved, I was puzzled and then disgusted to find an opening in the oven’s back, filled with egg shells, mango peels, bell pepper stems, and other things that didn’t get there by themselves. Maybe this explains all the nasty smells that used to linger in the kitchen even after I’d taken out the trash! Here’s photo evidence of its contents, on the shelf and then shaken out onto the floor. You’re welcome. 😉

Sometimes it takes a shake-up to expose nastiness. Though my life has been less disrupted by COVID-10 than many of yours, with few cases in Cambodia and minimal restrictions on daily life, I’ve still had to respond to the change, ambiguity, and suffering prevalent worldwide these days. When will borders reopen so my team can reunite? What do I do about the fraying relationships in my life, my community, my world? How will economic decline affect already-vulnerable Cambodians? What’s my identity when I feel alone and my dreams for life and ministry seem elusive? Rarely has my first response been to bring these legitimate questions before God. Instead? Anxiety. Cynicism. Pride. Not what I was hoping to find lurking in my heart and mind.

I don’t have a self-cleaning oven, or a self-cleaning heart. The decaying trash didn’t go away until I tilted the oven back and scrubbed it out. Likewise, God has used COVID’s shake-up not just to reveal my foul attitudes, but to invite me into an unequal trade. His peace for my anxiety. His joy for my cynicism. His humility for my pride. Though I still resist, it’s always a relief when I say yes. I’m learning to lament these broken places with God, waiting and trusting that he will weave them into his story of hope and redemption. And in several areas, I've spotted encouraging developments outside of me as well as inside.

I don’t pretend to know why 2020 has unfolded this way. But I do know that God doesn’t waste opportunities to pull us closer into his embrace… even when he knows we stink.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, 
   and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence, 
   and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, 
  and uphold me with a willing spirit.
-Psalm 51:10-12

Friday, July 31, 2020

Leeches and tigers and snakes, oh my!

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. 
An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. 
-G.K. Chesterton

"Can you imagine, three months with no nature? Not even visits to the park?" My mentor lives in Paris, and unlike Cambodia, France had strict quarantines for Covid.

"Actually, I can..."

Phnom Penh's quality of life has steadily improved in the 11 years since I arrived, especially for those with money, but nature is not its strong suit. The Vermonter in me still defines natural beauty as surroundings with abundant trees and/or mountains, preferably both. Neither abounds here.

Parks are more like an extra-wide median on a busy road
Even having learned to appreciate small-scale beauty in the city's lush flowers and trees, I get cabin fever every month or two. With Covid, it seemed unwise to cram into a van full of strangers, and I don't drive my little motor scooter on Cambodia's harrowing two-lane highways. So for nearly four months, I endured my concrete cage.

Perfect for town. Not for the open road.
Until now. Despite rainy season beginning in earnest, I've spent four of the last five weekends in Cambodia's provinces, of which three were in lush wooded mountains and three were on short notice. They brought me much delight... and reminded me that rural Cambodia isn't always relaxing.

Trip 1: Ratanakiri and Mondulkiri

This was my planned vacation: somewhere new, and an oldie-but-goodie. Both are in the northeastern mountains along the Vietnam border; Ratanakiri also borders Laos. I finally had time and a travel buddy for the 9-hour ride to Ratanakiri.

On the path around Ratanakiri's emerald green crater lake, my friend was nearly bitten by a meter-long snake that hissed and darted at her. So during our jungle tour the next day, we were on high alert.  We saw porcupine quills, but otherwise no wildlife bigger than butterflies. As we left, we asked our guide how often he sees snakes in here. "Pretty frequently." He said last year a tiger killed a 14-year-old girl from a nearby village.

Sweet flavor inside, satisfying symmetry outside
Homemade tea from jungle ginseng roots
One guy from a minority tribe met us at a waterfall to sign us into the park's guest book... the first visitors since March. He lingered while we ate lunch and napped, then hiked back out with us. "I don't like being alone in here. My friend fell out of a tree and died last month. They say his ghost haunts this jungle." I told him that I believe Jesus is stronger than ghosts and we don't need to be afraid when we know Him. I also shared the story of Rotana, a man in Preah Vihear from a minority tribe, who fell out of a tree and became a strong Christian through the recovery process.

Trip 2: Knang Psar and Knang Sampov Mountain

My downstairs neighbor Pheak mentioned training for a hiking trip on the border of Kampong Speu and Koh Kong provinces. It seemed like the perfect chance for quality time with her and my other downstairs neighbor, her cousin Thom. So two Khmer friends from church (Nakry and Raksmey) and I tagged along with them, a brother, two other cousins, and more Cambodians for an organized tour.

Most participants had never hiked for even an hour before
Besides Nakry and Raksmey, I don't know many Cambodians who camp. Just a generation ago, many people fled into the jungle during civil war. Pheak's aunt lost a foot, I'm guessing in a land mine. And anyone wanting to rough it can visit their cousin's banana plantation. Not long ago, you couldn't even buy a tent here. But we saw hundreds of other campers on Knang Psar, proving that camping is not just something white people like. With no foreign tourists, Cambodia is promoting domestic tourism, including Knang Psar for the first time.

I freaked out a bit last-minute when I read the packing list. "Knee socks, to avoid leeches." Encountering my first leech was not high on my bucket list. I didn't have long pants that worked for hiking or time to shop, so I ended up with a friend's soccer socks over capri leggings. Stylish!

Knang Psar isn't easy to access. Getting to the trail head involved a 4-hour bus ride for the first 100 km and nearly 2 hours for the last 8 km on a ko yun, an off-road tractor pulling a long, thin trailer. The ko yun ride was an excellent upper-body workout since it was always lurching around in the path's deep mud, trying to launch us into the air. One person bruised her tailbone; another fell off, but wasn't injured. (Good thing, since we were half a day away from a decent hospital!)

The first few minutes were deceptively smooth... 

The tour guides told us this was the second-last tour of the year because rainy season was making it impassable. The steep, muddy 6 km trail was fairly strenuous with our heavy bags. Some people paid locals to carry their stuff ($1.50 per kg, for a 4-hour hike). The trails have all been carved out by either Khmer Rouge guerilla soldiers and villagers over the years, or an off-road vehicle that recently plowed its way straight up the mountain through bamboo and underbrush. The tour guides hurried us along - "Just another 50 meters!" (to what? they never said) - and we made it just before a rain shower. Tents and cooking equipment awaited us at the top, and the guides brought along dinner ingredients... including live chickens tied to their makeshift backpacks!

There were fewer spiritual conversations than I'd hoped. However, Pheak brought up a mysterious fever she had last year that stumped the doctors and resisted treatment. "My aunt told us to travel to Pailin province and leave an offering to the spirit there. I'm not superstitious, but I went along with it and soon felt better. I'm not sure if the offering helped or not." 

At the top, we got to relax on a meadow until our fresh chicken dinner. The guides woke us up around 4 AM after a big rainstorm. They warned us to watch out for leeches, which emerge after rain. Easier said than done when it's pitch black out! We continued the last 3 km, which was stunning and leisurely (especially without gear), before reversing our trip from the day before.

Evening with Nakry  

Fog time lapse  

With Pheak

On the way home, Pheak's cousin showed us her battle wound. She'd been bitten by a leech the previous night... not anywhere that soccer socks would cover, but in her armpit! She hadn't noticed it until it fell off, but it left a large welt that bled for several minutes. That's when I found out these leeches can jump and climb trees, and like to lurk on leaves. *shudder* At least they don't carry diseases.

The tour guide blamed her. "On our other trips, nobody was bitten by a leech, even though we saw some. You probably angered the neak ta, the governing spirit, by complaining about his mountain. Next time, complain in English so the neak ta won't understand." She's the one with the injured tailbone who could barely sit down the whole first day - of course she complained! But by the bus ride, she thought the leech incident was pretty funny.

For anyone considering this hike - I recommend this tour, a labor of love by Sok Samchariya. The price was very reasonable ($65 all-inclusive... almost no profit for them) and the guides were well organized and super helpful. However, I'd probably advise going in June, before the trails get quite so muddy. (They said in dry season, it's brown and not worth visiting.)

Trip 3: Kirirom National Park

Just 70 miles away, Kirirom is the closest beautiful destination I know near Phnom Penh, but it's still a 3+ hour drive. My two friends who joined the Knang Psar trip invited me to join this one-night camping trip to Kirirom, organized by another woman from church. All 15 participants shared motos to get there, so I got a ride with a college guy I'd never met. Good thing he was a safe driver! I've never been on such a long moto trip. The motos were heavy laden, and my body ached even though they kept shuffling food, gear, and tents (from Japanese secondhand shops) to lighten the load for me, the hapless lone foreigner, and others who struggled.

Nakry, me, and Raksmey embracing the Kirirom selfies
We camped in the middle of nowhere, beside a trail. (My second time camping outside a campground - Knang Psar was my first!) I was glad to connect with new people, including a number of non-Christians. I didn't always feel like I fit in. I wanted to hike and stargaze on this clear, moonless night. They wanted to take selfies, drink, and listen to loud pop music. At least we agreed on conversation and cards. One guy was impressed: "You speak Khmer, you eat Khmer food, and you even know how to play Uno?!" Everyone was welcoming and helpful to me, and I had a couple of chances to mention Christ's love when they asked why I'd moved to Cambodia.

I have no wildlife stories from Kirirom, though I saw signs about Kirirom's poaching problem. I think in this oft-visited park, as in much of the world, humans are more dangerous to animals than vice versa.

The trip home was more comfortable for me, with less weight to carry, but all the drivers were sleep-deprived and maybe still hung over. I kept praying, and powered by energy drinks, we made it safely.

Trip 4: Preah Vihear

My colleagues Jim and Carolyn organized a BBQ to surprise their teammate Joel for his birthday. About 12 of us World Teamers rented a van together for the 5-hour trip. He was stunned on arrival, especially since he'd called me minutes earlier, not knowing I was half a mile away. One couple and I stayed two extra nights to hang out with the staff and students at the dorm where I did my homestay two years ago... still some of my favorite people on earth.

My colleagues Jeff and Courtney have been in country for 20 years, including five in Preah Vihear. This smooth, easy drive used to take them nearly 3x as long. On the way up, they were reminiscing about previous trips.

"It was right around here that Joel and James' moving truck tipped over in the rainstorm and went into the creek!"

"There used to be 68 wooden bridges along this road, and when someone needed wood to repair their house, they'd borrow a log or two. I narrowly missed a hole and didn't have time to warn the people behind me. One guy's moto went out from under him, hit the ground below the bridge, and bounced back up to hit him in mid-air!"

And my favorite: "Remember that time we saw a tree trunk lying across the entire road? I was wondering how we'd get around it, but then it started moving and I realized it was a snake. I had no category in my mind for snakes that size!"

I have it good nowadays, not just in daily urban life, but also in my rural outings! While there were stressful moments on each trip, they were outweighed by the refreshment I received along the way, and I always ended up fine. And the rain never caused more than slight alterations to our plans.

I'm not a huge risk-taker. While I'm willing to brave discomfort for work or ministry, I usually prefer more relaxing vacations with close friends and perks like hot showers. I'd been getting bored with my "usual" destinations, though. This summer's riskier trips led to some great sights and interactions that I'd be sad to have missed. Thanks to Covid, I was antsy enough to embrace the inconvenience as an adventure in disguise.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Partying like it's 2019

Panny was the gateway to my new neighborhood three years ago. Now she's no longer my neighbor.

L to R: me, Panny, Socheat
I first met her when I visited her little shop for a Coke. I nervously asked the women playing cards out front if someone could briefly help answer a question for my Khmer homework. Panny was grumpy that I'd tried to interrupt the game and suspicious of me, not realizing I'd recently moved onto her street. She made me interview the only guy present, teasing him that since he was single, he should talk to the foreign girl. I almost didn't go back. But I knew the people gathered around her table were the kind I wanted to get to know: not tempted to switch to English, not friends with many foreigners, not especially rich or poor by Phnom Penh standards, sort of "average" urban Cambodians. I wanted a place at that table, so I returned each week, buying more snacks and drinks and asking for permission to listen in on their conversations. 

Panny and her twins. I've spent countless hours sitting at this table.
At first she couldn't understand my Khmer well, plus she's introverted and not a people pleaser. (She and another neighbor, Socheat, came once for dinner, but she refused a second invitation because "I can't eat your cooking.") So my visits' success depended on her customers and her former next-door neighbor who sold rice porridge. But she slowly warmed up, exposing me to dozens of neighboring customers. When she had twin girls last summer, she let me enter her home (one simple room behind the store) to help alongside Socheat. At Panny's request, I occasionally helped her older daughters, now around ages 11 and 7, practice English. We especially enjoyed reading children's books together when Covid closed schools in March.

She and her family moved in April into their own house, 8 km farther from town. They've been paying bit by bit to build it, and moved into it still unfinished. She promised to have me over once it was done, but without an address or specific directions, I wasn't sure how that would happen. In the meantime, I've been delighted that her friend and fellow neighbor Lida took over the shop. Lida used to hang out at Panny's shop a lot, but I think she gets bored being there alone now, so she's been eager to chat with me.

One day, Panny left me a voice message on Facebook. "Come to my housewarming party next weekend! Lida and Socheat and everyone will be there." Later I learned it was timed to coincide with the twins' first birthday, a big deal here. Showing up to events is a key way to show you care about someone; I even delayed my vacation to attend. On Sunday night, five women and two kids got dressed up, piled into Socheat's 5-seater car, and sought this elusive home, bouncing down a series of muddy roads. 

I got advice from Lida and my landlady on the dress code, since I don't have much experience with housewarming parties. They told me I could go simpler than the bling and professional hair/makeup expected for wedding guests (similar to Panny's style here). Black and white clothes were also OK, though these funeral colors are taboo at weddings. I straightened my hair and wore a simple dress with dangly earrings and a bit of makeup. On the way there, they were chatting about how they don't usually wear much makeup these days and this party was a rare exception. I told them, "Yeah, I'm not very good at makeup," and one of them looked at me and said, "You look better without it." Unfortunately, it felt less like "You're too pretty to need makeup" and more like "What made you do that to your face today?" Laughing, I asked if I should wash it off, but the conversation had raced on and no one replied. At least I got compliments on my dress!

L to R: the male MC, Mr. Panny (I still don't know his name!), and Panny
Besides the guests' appearance, it was almost exactly like a wedding. The same colorful canopy tent with fake flowers in the street outside their house. The same round tables with family-style dinners served course by course on a lazy Susan: nuts and fried snacks, processed meat, salad with pork, fish with bok choy, fried rice, and corn pudding. The same silly string spraying everywhere at a pivotal moment: in this case, when we sang "Happy Birthday" with a soundtrack boasting multiple verses. The same karaoke, mostly by neighbors I've often heard out my window. The same dancing counterclockwise around a table near the stage, two steps forward and one step back, slowly rotating your wrists and waving your fingers. The same frequent toasts, with free-flowing beer for the men, and soda or other sugary drinks for most women. The same giant amps, making my right eardrum throb in pain at the screechy high notes as I danced. (I'm still not sure how the birthday girls weren't screaming... maybe early hearing loss?) The same relative sitting at the entrance collecting cash gifts: $20 per person seemed the norm, a bit less than a wedding. The same MC's cracking jokes, doing funny voices, and moving the evening along. And guess who the male MC was? The guy who answered my questions the first day! He must have moved away, because I haven't seen him in a while. 

One difference is that unlike most weddings, this took place during rainy season. Sitting at the edge of the sideless tent with a slow drizzle outside, my hair instantly frizzed and my shoes were submerged in an inch of water from the afternoon downpour. Another difference is that they left the front of their home open so we could walk in and out of their living room. We took a quick tour of the downstairs and I learned a new phrase: Panny's family had bought a "pig snout" land plot, shaped almost like a triangle, so their house got narrower from the living room to the kitchen. 

Besides the typical Chinese-style altar on the floor, there was a special table set up with a portrait of Buddha and some offerings. That morning, the monks had come to bless the house, just as they would come to do wedding ceremonies. Like many people I know, Panny and her husband seem more interested in covering their bases by completing various Buddhist/animist protective rituals than in understanding the philosophy or reflecting on the extent to which they believe. Panny shies away even from mentioning religion with me, and her husband has told me a common line: "Buddhism and Christianity are basically the same, because they teach you to be good." 

Lida and me, having put up our now-frizzy hair 

Panny with our carload at the entrance
To my knowledge, nobody used hand sanitizer or masks, or mentioned Covid. Someone told me recently that Cambodians are "quick to fear, quick to forget." When the news broke about Covid in China back in January, with no cases here yet, Cambodia sold out of hand sanitizer and masks. In March and early April, since most cases were imported by Western tourists, I was getting nervous looks from strangers. But by this party in late June, we'd had just 7 new cases in the previous 2.5 months, and no deaths at all. Even though schools, religious centers, and movie theaters are still closed for the foreseeable future, the malls and restaurants are as crowded as ever - with masks becoming rarer - and people are turning out again for parties like this one, seemingly unconcerned. 

A packed-out mall parking lot. When did Phnom Penh get so many cars, anyway?

For whatever reason, Covid seems to be threatening Cambodia's economy much more than its citizens' health. The government has prioritized strict immigration policies over restrictions for those already here. So nobody seemed to mind crowding 80 people into a tent, sharing buffet spoons, passing around the babies, or dancing in close quarters. Hopefully it's not foolish, but I've generally taken my cues from those around me. If they're not scared of my foreigner germs, despite the narrative that Covid is a "foreigner problem," I don't want to seem scared of their germs either. 

Birthday sparklers

Can you recognize this Khmer cover of an American oldie?

Seeing Panny and her family made me wistful. I gave the oldest girl a quick hug and wondered when she'd last been hugged, since most Khmer families aren't big on physical affection with school-aged kids. I'd been hoping to keep growing closer with them. Now Panny doesn't seem to welcome me dropping by uninvited, and on a moto, she can't easily visit our neighborhood with all four kids. I'm praying that they'll connect with Khmer believers and that this isn't our last visit. 

But the evening together also amazed me at how far we've come. Thanks to Panny and her crew, I understand a lot more street Khmer. These neighbors are the ones who taught me about Khmer money-saving groups called "tongtin," the difference between kids' official names and their at-home names, how to play Khmer-style Bingo, how Cambodians care for newborns, and much more. They've helped me get over my stereotypes of "average" urban Cambodians and see their diversity as well as their commonalities. 

I wish I could tell my 2017 self, sheepishly skulking home and afraid to try again, that I'd eventually be the lone foreigner attending Panny's party, where I'd recognize at least half the guests. I'm not sure I could tell my 2017 self how weird that party would be in a global context where social distancing is a given. But social proximity has incredible value for building relationships. I'm thankful for all those visits around Panny's table, and for this opportunity... germs and all... to be there for her. 

Thursday, April 30, 2020

The hidden significance of children's books

"I have always imagined that Paradise would be a kind of library." 
Jorge Luis Borges

I've loved books longer than I can remember. Some of my favorite childhood memories involve books. One of my earliest ambitions was to be a children's librarian because I thought I could read all day. I don't know how many thousands of times someone read aloud to me, but I do know that thanks to my mom and dad and other patient read-aloud-ers, learning to read felt as natural as learning to breathe. 

My six years as an English teacher at Logos International School turned out to be a decent substitute for children's librarian. I put the above quote on my wall. I read aloud The Little Prince excerpts to my World Lit students, You Are Special in devotions, and The Day Jimmy's Boa Ate the Wash in English pronunciation class for my Khmer colleagues. A real highlight of working at Logos was the year I got to read to the 5th graders weekly during library time. My students even wrote children's books in French 2. I told them more than once, "If you're too old for children's books, you're too old to be alive." They didn't dare protest.
French 1 students visited French 2 for "story time" by the authors 

More recently, I've enjoyed reading with my nephews and nieces in the US. This winter, it was great introducing them to two family favorites, The Story about Ping and But No Elephants! The funniest experience was reading a fairly predictable book, Watch Me Hop. Here's a sample page: "I'm soft and furry and my ears flip-flop. I'm a bunny, watch me hop!" After the first few pages, I reached this one: "I have webbed feet and a fuzzy yellow top. I'm a chick, watch me..." and paused to let my niece complete the sentence. "Kill!" she piped up instantly. Well, that upped the book's intensity. 

March brought record opportunities to read with kids in Cambodia. My neighbor kids were off school with no online class, and two moms asked if I could teach their three girls English in all their newfound free time. (They knew some English already.) I got my Logos librarian neighbors to load me up with kids' books. There aren't many Khmer picture books, since Khmer has only 16 million native speakers worldwide, most of whom are fairly poor and not a great market for book distributors. So forget books with characters who look like the kids - these families can barely find books the parents can read. 

I don't think my neighbor kids own any fun books, just school workbooks, so this was very special for them. And tricky. One girl's little brother didn't know how to take care of books and kept stepping on them, trying to cut them with nail clippers, etc. while the others' baby sister kept grabbing and nearly tearing the pages. But we enjoyed ourselves.

Their favorite was one written by my neighbor back in the US, Just Enough and Not Too Much. In it, Simon lives alone and has a simple lifestyle, until he decides he needs MORE. We used the book in several ways: We counted the hairs, hats, etc. that he accumulates... named the colors... described items (big, funny, beautiful, etc.)... drew pictures of them... and most appealing: picked our favorites from each set. The oldest is a confident English reader, but the other two needed me to speak in a mixture of English and Khmer.

I tried to have the kids predict the story, which was funny because they kept guessing something different. "Simon's not happy. He wants more. What do you think he wants?" "A wife!" (The thought of living alone is very sad to most Cambodians, and Simon's "cozy little house" is bigger than both families' apartments combined.) "Now that he has all those chairs, will he be happy?" "Yes, he will!" Schools here rarely have students predict or reflect on stories, so I like to encourage kids to try when reading with me.

I haven't seen the kids in a month, even though there are no rules here about social distancing per se. (We have few officially reported Covid cases here, and the government just says 'avoid large gatherings.') One family just moved across the city, and the other sent their daughter (on the right, in red) to her grandparents' village for a while. So I treasure our opportunity to read those books together! But I'll at least see the girl in red again, and I'm pretty sure I know what book she'll ask me to bring.

I read several of those same books shortly afterward with my American teammate Liz and Ethan's kids, who had been housebound for a while with almost no visitors. The kids were so happy to have attention from a new adult, they asked to read each book twice! The first time through, they listened attentively and their comments stayed focused on the story. The second time, they got creative and had big plans for us to act out the stories or do peripherally related activities. Their family are huge readers, and they probably own more Khmer picture books (13) than both the other families combined... or really most Khmer families... not to mention English books. 

This children's book, used in my language class long ago, is one of few with a Cambodian child as the main character

I've been fascinated by GapMinder's Dollar Street website, which has photographed hundreds of families and their homes in fifty countries, reporting each family's country, spending power, and a bit of their hopes and dreams. The photos let you see a family's home in detail (where do they wash their hands? What does the floor look like? Where are clothes kept?) or view one category of photos, such as toilets or beds, across locations and incomes. 

In its article on books, GapMinder notes that book ownership correlates much more strongly with a family's wealth than with their country or region. The wealthiest families often have access to libraries as well. The number of books in the home is also a strong predictor of reading and educational attainment (Clark and Picton, 2018). As we read together, I couldn't help picturing all these kids ten or twenty years from now, shaped by such sharply contrasting opportunities around books. Dollar Street lets you view all 250+ families' books, but the article includes four representative photos. Which best reflects your home?

A poor family in Malawi: notebooks and religious texts in a box
A low to middle income family in Indonesia: two shelves of educational resources

A middle to high income family in Bulgaria: some leisure reading for adults on display

A wealthy family in Sweden: many fiction and nonfiction books on display

Though Ethan, Liz, and their three kids live in a small two-bedroom apartment, on a fraction of the salaries they'd earn as doctors back home, hundreds of miles from a public library, their crowded bookshelf and online library access accurately mark them... like me... as being among the world's richest. Looking at book collections on Dollar Street was a sobering reminder to them and me of our privilege. Books have enriched our lives in ways that no change in employment status or global economy could take away. 

Children's books in particular have offered me a unique invitation to connect intergenerationally and cross-culturally. They invite us into conversation and imagination, and they help lay a foundation for future learning. I'm moved by Liz's response to this post earlier today: "We've given away so many books in Africa [they spent 2 years in Cameroon] and here, and I'm still always thinking how much more we have than people around us." May I follow her and Ethan's example of giving freely and gratefully. I don't want to be embarrassed of my book privilege, or to let it divide me from others, but to share the wealth with those around me however I can. Maybe imitating a library is a way to bring Paradise just a little bit closer.